Atlas Shrugged: Black Lung

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter II

Because of the looters’ Fair Share Law, Hank Rearden can no longer choose his customers. In particular, he can’t legally sell to Ken Danagger, the owner of Danagger Coal in Pennsylvania, who badly needs Rearden Metal to brace the shafts of his coal mines. But Hank knows that Danagger needs the metal more than the looters’ crony businesses do, so he decides to sell to him illegally:

They had had to meet furtively, like criminals who could not be seen together. They could not meet in their offices or in their homes, only in the crowded anonymity of a city, in his suite at the Wayne Falkland Hotel. There could be a fine of $10,000 and ten years of imprisonment for each of them, if it became known that he had agreed to deliver to Danagger four thousand tons of structural shapes of Rearden Metal.

They had not discussed that law, at their dinner together, or their motives or the risk they were taking. They had merely talked business. Speaking clearly and dryly, as he always spoke at any conference, Danagger had explained that half of his original order would be sufficient to brace such tunnels as would cave in, if he delayed the bracing much longer, and to recondition the mines of the Confederated Coal Company, gone bankrupt, which he had purchased three weeks ago – “It’s an excellent property, but in rotten condition; they had a nasty accident there last month, cave-in and gas explosion, forty men killed.”

When their deal is done, Danagger and Rearden go their separate ways, but not before agreeing on what they’ll do if their deal is found out:

At the end of the dinner, Danagger had said in the same precise, impassive tone, the tone of a man who knows the exact meaning of his words, “If any employee of yours or mine discovers this and attempts private blackmail, I will pay it, within reason. But I will not pay, if he has friends in Washington. If any of those come around, then I go to jail.” “Then we go together,” Rearden had said.

This is a reiteration of Rand’s argument that industrial disasters are only ever caused by government interference, that these things would never happen if business owners were left alone to do as they think best. When a Randian industrialist drives a train at a hundred miles an hour through densely populated areas on rails made of a new and untested metal to show off his awesomeness, there’s no danger at all. But as soon as one government bureaucrat enters the picture, telling capitalists what they can and can’t do, people start dying left and right.

I earlier mentioned the oddity of Ayn Rand’s choice of career for Dagny Taggart. Out of all the industries Rand could have picked to showcase the heroism of capitalists who built their business from the ground up with their own two hands, she chose railroads – an industry that could never have existed without major government financing, land grants and eminent domain.

But this is an even more ridiculous example of historical illiteracy. Out of all the industries Rand could have used to make her argument that private enterprise would be safe and humane if not for government meddling, she chose coal mining. I can only conclude that this choice was made out of a willful perversity to fact. Not even Ayn Rand could possibly believe that coal mining only became hazardous when the government got involved.

Coal mining has always been a dangerous profession, as we saw just this week in Turkey with the worst mining disaster in that country’s history. And while there’s no doubt the job is intrinsically dangerous, that danger has historically been accentuated by greedy owners who sent workers into unstable shafts or ignored buildups of explosive gas and dust. Until they were forced to take heed of safety by the government, mine owners often reasoned that dead miners could always be replaced.

For half of the 20th century, miners dying on the job was a regular occurrence. Coal mining deaths began to decline in the 1950s, and fell even more steeply in the 1970s, after OSHA was created. By Rand’s reasoning, those deaths should have spiked, not nosedived, when bureaucrats and lawmakers started enforcing safety regulations. And when lethal accidents do happen today, they’re often provably caused by negligent mining companies that cut corners in the name of profit.

One example is the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010, where an explosion killed 29 miners, the worst accident in the U.S. in forty years. A report on the cause of the tragedy said that the mine owner, Massey Energy, “operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk taking”. Among other things, the report said that Massey had an inadequate ventilation system that let flammable gases build up.

And just this week, two U.S. miners died in an accident in a mine run by Patriot Coal, a company with so many safety violations that OSHA deemed it a “pattern violator”. The fatal accident happened during “retreat mining”, a risky and dangerous method that entails pulling down pillars of coal that had been left in place to support the ceiling, then withdrawing from the area before a cave-in happens.

The danger from coal mining isn’t just from cave-ins and explosions. There are chronic hazards, especially respiratory disease from inhaling coal dust. But here, again, corporate greed makes an intrinsic danger even worse: in one notorious case from 2007, the coal-mining giant Peabody Energy spun off its pension and health obligations to retirees into a designed-to-fail shell company, which promptly declared bankruptcy and went to court asking for those obligations to be dissolved. That company was Patriot Coal – yes, the same pattern violator.

In an Objectivist utopia, nothing would prevent companies from pulling sleazy stunts like this, or from treating workers as replaceable commodities whose lives can be gambled in pursuit of profit. (If they’re killed on the job, they obviously didn’t love capitalism enough.) In their conversation, Danagger castigates the government for “[not] seem[ing] to have a clear picture” of what would happen if Taggart Transcontinental collapsed for lack of fuel, implying that they’re blind to the consequences of their own ideas. But it’s Rand, in her naivete, who doesn’t have a clear picture of what would happen if all supervision and safety regulation were annulled.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    I’ve noticed before how Rand, and libertarians in general, hand-waves away the whole class of people who make up the financial class. Anyone in business who is not one of her heros must have been corrupted by government — the idea that someone could be a dirty rotten scoundral all on their own doesn’t seem to be considered.

    It’s really hard for me to see how the failures of instruments like credit default swaps can be understood as a result of too much government, yet seemingly that’s what the Objectivist ideology demands.

    Secondly, I know I’ve been mentioning a lot, but this time around it’s really getting puzzling and irritating. Last week it was Daniels, and now it’s Danagger; why is it that none of these people can be explicit about their principles? I guess we as readers should be greatful, because when Rand does get explicit we get Galt’s interminable speech. But all this wink-wink nonsense is driving me nuts.

  • Guest

    (I think you tripped yourself up on negatives – you meant too much, not too little. )

  • David Andrew Kearney

    Thanks!

  • eyelessgame

    Is the wink-wink perhaps a clumsy attempt to build suspense for Galt’s Speech? Everyone’s hinting around it, but they don’t want to give away the big reveal… the reader should be breathlessly awaiting the Speech by the time it happens. You should *think* you know what the philosophy is, from the hints, but still waiting for the author to lay it all out in one place.

    So to be any plainer would be an authorial mistake, because it might make the Speech … dull. And Rand would never do that.
    ;)

  • Edin Villalobos Mora

    That failure is usually explained because the government force them to borrow to bad home-owners, explanation courtesy of the Cato Institute.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    I don’t think Rand thinks coal-mine safety regulations are so much ineffective as inefficient. After all, no economist thinks life is infinitely valuable. Does Rand anywhere imply that coal mine accidents don’t happen without government intervention?

  • http://www.ghiapet.net/ Randy Owens

    In their conversation, Danagger castigates the government for “[not] seem[ing] to have a clear picture” of what would happen if Taggart Transcontinental collapsed for lack of fuel, implying that they’re blind
    to the consequences of their own ideas.

    So, Rand is arguing here for keeping monopolies from developing so that TT won’t collapse because of problems with one supplier, have I got that right? Or is it in favour of ensuring that TT can buy coal even if other companies would prefer not to sell to them?

  • eyelessgame

    There are two sorts of economists; those who think that a person’s life has a value equal to the that person’s potential future non-fungible economic output, and those who are not sociopaths.

    Moneymaking ventures, to the extent that they are solely concerned with moneymaking, by their nature agree with the first sort of economist, and set their safety standards accordingly.

    In the absence of a labor shortage, a miner’s non-fungible economic output is equal to the cost of training his replacement.

  • CATMAN

    Don’t you just love the corporate cynicism of naming a company whose sole purpose is to screw workers, retirees and ultimately, the government who will have to pick up the tab, PATRIOT Coal Peabody Coal has been one of the sleaziest coal companies in the US for a long time– my father told horror stories about them when he worked at one of their mines in the 30′s

  • X. Randroid

    I don’t think Rand gave a rat’s ass about whether regulation was effective or efficient or both. In her view, coal-mine safety regulations (and any other regulations) were an infringement on the rights of the mine owners, therefore not acceptable. Full stop. It didn’t matter to her whether regulations actually make miners safer or not.

    She handwaved away arguments about danger to the miners with the rationalization that in a truly free market, safety regulations would be unnecessary. Demand for labor would be more or less infinite, so any workers who didn’t think A’s mine was safe would always have the choice to go work somewhere else. Thus, in order to attract enough workers to keep the mine going, A would have to improve safety. She could ignore all historical evidence to the contrary because, after all, the “truly free” market she envisions has never existed. Real mine owners had unsafe mines because they didn’t know better, or because their taxes were too high. Or something.

  • Doomedd

    While I am not an expert, I think Rand’s opinion is worse that what you describe. Rand often use the word parasite when she don’t refer to “movers”. I interpret it as extreme dehumanization and diabolization aimed at anyone who is not a “captain of the industry”. This gives me the impression that she didn’t think miners would have it better with “true free market”; she, at best, doesn’t care. At worst, she may actually think they deserve to die even if is it a little more expensive.

    I also got this impression when I read some texts from objectivists but not from libertarians.

    I have 2 argument that support my extreme interpretation.
    1) She admired William Edward Hickman, a kidnaper and a murderer
    2) The train crash in AS where the author seem to take a sadistic pleasure with the deaths. She wants their death.

    Edit: I swapped paragraph 2 and 3.

  • eyelessgame

    I’d add 3) she writes a novel wherein a man who deliberately engineers the collapse of civilization and the death of most of humanity is portrayed as a perfect hero and the only worthwhile sort of person.

  • Azkyroth

    More precisely, it’s generally explained as the government forcing them to lend to brown people.

  • SmogMonster

    Ooooh Lord. I actually work for a company that offers services to the Chinese coal mining industry, among others. Chinese coal mines are, to put it mildly, poorly regulated; the mines are in remote areas accessible frequently only by literally days of driving over dirt roads, and the regulators themselves are too few and too easily bribable.

    The miners, the people who actually go down into the hole and dig the stuff out, are to a man poor, ill-educated, and lacking in other economic opportunities. They are looked down upon generally for being rural people. The mine owners view them as both infinitely replaceable and significantly less valuable than the equipment.

    Being a Chinese coal miner is one of the most dangerous jobs on earth, even if you only look at the statistics put out by the State Administration of Work Safety, which are almost surely too low by half.

  • X. Randroid

    I find it interesting that many here seem to assume that Atlas Shrugged presents what Rand thinks “producers” should do in the real world, today, when I know Rand did not intend it that way. It’s supposed to be a dystopian world, not the real US, more totalitarian, with no free speech rights and no Constitution to rely on. She always maintained that as long as the US protected free speech, it was better to stay in society and argue for change rather than go on strike.

    I’m curious about why so many readers don’t get this. I can think of at least a couple of reasons. One is that Rand failed to make her dystopia different enough from the real US, so readers can’t tell that she wasn’t trying to depict the US as it exists today. Another is that most dystopian fiction isn’t promoting an ethical system that smacks of sociopathy (which is going to evoke hostility).

    And I will grant you that Rand was sociopathic, but not murderous. I’d call it “utopian sociopathy.” Her claim is that it’s morally right for property owners to be completely indifferent to the well-being of others, as long as they don’t resort to force … but nobody has anything to fear because (by happy coincidence rather than intent!) the property owners will end up doing things that benefit everyone. It’s rainbows and unicorns all around, although you’ll probably have to pay Dagny Taggart if you want to ride the unicorn over the rainbow.

  • eyelessgame

    it’s morally right for property owners to be completely indifferent to the well-being of others, as long as they don’t resort to force … but nobody has anything to fear because (by happy coincidence rather than intent!) the property owners will end up doing things that benefit everyone.

    Interesting – because the entire book serves as a refutation of that latter claim. No such happy coincident event occurs as a result of property owners’ indifference; instead, civilization collapses, millions die. Galt knows it will happen and sets out to make it happen. That’s not indifference except of the most depraved sort.

    That said, you know the mindset better than I do, and as you say it’s a dystopic story, where different morals are permitted to apply because the situation is so different. I guess the argument is that the mindset of the rest of the country was doomed to be fatal to them eventually and there’s nothing Galt or anyone else could have done to save them – not that he was ever going to try. But it’s a premise that requires… a whole lot of lead in the drinking water or something.

  • X. Randroid

    Re (1), yes the Hickman thing is disturbing. I think “she admired a murderer” is oversimplifying it, and what she actually wrote is even more sociopathic, if less pro-murder. What she admired wasn’t the crime (which she called “terrible”) or even the real Hickman. What she admired was a Nietzschean-ubermensch character she projected onto Hickman. She ends up blaming society for turning a noble soul into a monster by failing to “give him anything to outbalance crime in his eyes.” (Journals of Ayn Rand, pp. 36-38.)

    Re (2), all I’m going to say for now is that in Rand’s (warped)( mind, the people she gleefully kills in the Winston Tunnel scene were themselves killers, spreading the evil ideas that were destroying the world. And authorial revenge porn is hardly original to Rand.

    As far as wanting ordinary workers (like coal miners) to die. I don’t think so. Her “ordinary worker” in Atlas is Eddie Willers. And although she leaves him stranded, she seems sad about it, not gleeful.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Her “ordinary worker” in Atlas is Eddie Willers. And although she leaves him stranded, she seems sad about it, not gleeful.

    Really? One of the things I found most shocking about this book was Rand’s apparent indifference to Eddie’s fate. After all, Dagny sends him off on what’s essentially a suicide mission, then never thinks of him again or wonders what became of him (as far as we’re told). I agree she’s not gleeful about it, but she seems largely unconcerned.

  • X. Randroid

    I guess the argument is that the mindset of the rest of the country was doomed to be fatal to them eventually and there’s nothing Galt or anyone else could have done to save them.

    That’s basically it. If the United States of Atlasstan would have just let the producers be free to produce (you know, do away with all those nasty taxes and regulations, and stop calling us evil!), the producers would have stayed and produced and everyone would have been alive and well. But the U.S. of A. refused to do that, which meant it was doomed in the long run. By walking away, the strikers merely accelerated the inevitable.

    Plausible? Yeah, with enough “lead in the drinking water or something.” :-)

  • Loren Petrich

    Sort of like philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche on what his aristocratic heroes must do: “The object is to attain that enormous energy of greatness which can model the man of the future by means of discipline and also by means of the annihilation of millions of the bungled and botched, and which can yet avoid going to ruin at the sight of the suffering created thereby, the like of which has never been seen before.”

    He seemed to look forward to an era of great wars, but he more or less got what he wanted a few decades after his death.

  • Science Avenger

    Also remember Mike from The Fountainhead who was also an ordinary worker. Rand was not a classist per se, although her attitude often appeared as such. It was those with the looter mentality that she thought were anti-life and therefore deserving of the death they worshipped.

  • Science Avenger

    ” Until they were forced to take heed of safety by the government, mine owners often reasoned that dead miners could always be replaced.”

    That’s pretty much the history of every industry, including ironically enough, railroads. Despite safer alternatives being available (the invention of coupling hitches) the railroads were happy to continue with manual switchmen, who had to stand between the rail cars and manually connect them at great risk to life and fingers, until government mandated use of the superior/safer technology.

  • X. Randroid

    Wait a minute. Dagny doesn’t send Eddie on the “suicide mission”; he volunteers for it. In fact, Dagny tries to talk him out of it, but he insists, saying he knows she’ll eventually rebuild but he doesn’t want to. “Not after what I’ve seen.” So she lets him go, albeit reluctantly.

    The next (and last) time we see Eddie, he’s stranded on a stalled train in the desert and refusing an offer of rescue. Rand doesn’t show us his death, although she doesn’t leave him with any real hope. I don’t think Rand is indifferent in narrating this scene; if she were, she’d just kill him. I think she’s actually trying to evoke some sympathy, no easy task for her. (And it seems to have worked, at least among her followers, who comfort themselves by imagining that he later gets rescued by strikers.)

    Eddie’s fate is one of the few things where I don’t recall there being a One True Reading, although it’s much discussed among her followers.

    I have a couple of (post-Randroid) theories. One is that Rand needed Eddie to be far from New York when Dagny quits, as that would allow Rand to dodge the conundrum of “does Eddie go out on strike with Dagny?” On the one hand, she maintains that anyone can make the choice to be rational and live by the strikers’ oath, so why would Eddie (who is basically rational, etc., if not particularly bright) not go? The problem is that Rand also wants Galt’s Gulch to be an exclusive playground inhabited only by the ubermenschen, so having Eddie there wouldn’t fit. Having Eddie in New York when Dagny quits would have forced Rand to confront this contradiction, so she has him voluntarily remove himself.

    My other theory is that one of Eddie’s major functions in the novel (apart from aiding and abetting a stalker) is to be a personification of the railroad. As it fades into oblivion, so must he.

  • X. Randroid

    Yep.

    Of course that’s not how libertarians (including Objectivists) tell it. In their version of history, all the successful labor and safety regulations did little (or nothing) more than codify what industry was already doing. They claim the only reason regulation hasn’t already wrecked the economy is that the regulators up to now have been smart enough not to step ahead of the industries they’re regulating … but one day those nasty regulators are going to go too far and then we’re all doomed!!!

  • J-D

    What I want to know is this: should I pronounce Danagger like DAN-uh-guh or like d’NAG-uh?

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    I find it interesting that many here seem to assume that Atlas Shrugged presents what Rand thinks “producers” should do in the real world, today, when I know Rand did not intend it that way…. I’m curious about why so many readers don’t get this.

    I think it’s because the impact and relevance of Teh Strike is that it supposedly could happen in the real world, and that the ever-present threat of it happening is why the rest of us must always be deferential to the rich and powerful. This at least was a fashionable (if ludicrous) narrative on the Right after they had been soundly rebuked in the elections of ’06 and ’08.

    If you assume that the Galtian superheroes have no intention of ever striking unless some highly unlikely threshold is met (like the abolition of free speech), then the warning that we must bow to them for our own good loses force. Also, too, if you correctly assume that the strikers would starve themselves while nothing much changed for the rest of us.

  • UWIR

    Your post is a mix of ignorance, nonsense, and blind hatred. I don’t know what you think “fungible” means, as your post doesn’t make sense with its actual meaning. There are not two types of economists; anyone who does not believe that a person’s value is equal to their economic output is not an economist. A person’s economic output is defined as their value. Everything that you ever do that is of value is part of your economic output.

    Moneymaking ventures are not concerned with what economic output a person has; they are concerned with what portion of the person’s output the can capture. Your claim that all economists (and, again, your description is not of “one type” of economists, but of all economists) are sociopaths unconcerned with anything other than what other people can do for them is idiotic and offensive, and shows that you prefer to spouting off on topics you know nothing about to actually learning something.

    You post is, according to Disqus, a reply to Enopoletus Harding’s post, but you have not addressed at all the point that ” After all, no economist thinks life is infinitely valuable.” You don’t seem to have made any effort to understand that point. Instead, you’ve just continued in your mindless nonsense that EH was trying to refute. It costs money to put safety precautions in place. And that cost isn’t just meaningless pieces of paper. It represents other people’s lives. If the mineshafts are reinforced with steel, you are trading the portion of steelworkers’ lives that they spent making that steel for the lives of the coal miners. It’s perfectly valid to claim that in a particular case, the cost is worth it. But it’s not valid to claim that any cost, no matter how large, is worth it. And don’t you DARE say that anyone who counts the costs, that anyone who tries to quantify the cost and compare it against the benefit, is a “sociopath”.

    And your third paragraph is just absurd. Clearly, a miner outputs more than what it would cost to train a replacement. Are you even thinking about what you say before saying it?

  • David Andrew Kearney

    You know, now that you mention it, it’s a bit weird that all of her major works are dystopias, or at least have dystopian elements. For all of her “benevolent sense of life” talk, she really could be a Debbie Downer. :)

  • David Andrew Kearney

    Only a looter could possibly ask such a question!

  • X. Randroid

    FWIW, the Randroids say DAN-uh-grr. If you don’t want to be mistaken for one, you can always pronounce it differently.

  • GCT

    Oh, hey look, the resident racist is back.

    A person’s economic output is defined as their value.

    Not surprised that you’re a sociopath too.

    If the mineshafts are reinforced with steel, you are trading the portion of steelworkers’ lives that they spent making that steel for the lives of the coal miners.

    Which is why steelworkers should have safety for their jobs as well, duh. But, hey, I’m very sure that the owners of coal mines are not instituting safety measures for the coal miners simply because they are worried about what might happen to the poor steelworkers.

  • unbound55

    Just like when seat belts were being proposed as being mandatory in cars, and the auto manufacturers laughed and said they already were since the 3 point safety belt system had been widely available for over a decade at that point.

    Oh wait. Actually, they fought that regulation tooth and nail because it would increase their costs (no matter that they were trivial). Because of the battles, an insurance company (to save their costs) actually sued the government to pursue the battle harder. None of the companies involved gave a moments consideration about people or their lives, only their costs.

    Just one example of thousands that can be dredged up. Companies are always looking to save money and never to spend money on something trivial like safety (unless they can get more sales or more profits as a result).

  • Azkyroth

    I believe it’s one of the recent Jeep models that was discovered to have a design flaw that caused the keys to sometimes tilt and accidentally shut off the engine while it was driving. The company discovered it during testing, and fixing it would have cost 12 cents per vehicle…nope, they put it into production anyway.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    The hilarious thing is that the Cato Institute denied that there was any such thing as a housing bubble just as the bubble was reaching its peak, lest the government do something to stop it. It was only after the fact that they decided that the bubble which previously did not exist was all the fault of the government.

  • Edin Villalobos Mora

    It isn’t funny because I think the main accepted explanation of the crisis is the one of the Cato Institute.
    In my country, the main tv-news tell that version.

  • Pacal

    The problem with Rand’s notion that property owners doing what they want and not resorting to force is that they do. Threatening to fire someone if they don’t do X is resorting to force. Contracts are enforced by force. Property rights are enforced by force. A functioning society requires coercion at least some of the time. The idea that a society could function by means of “freely” entered into agreements with no coercion is simple idiocy. Rand seemed to be utterly incapable of recognizing that those with more “property” had a vastly greater ability and power to coerce others into decisions those people may not have wanted to make.


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